The essential old-house toolbox

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

Assembling a collection of basic tools can be challenging for a neophyte old-house owner. Many tempting tools beckon from glitzy displays at home centers, and it's easy to drop a lot of money on the wrong ones.

Most of us add to our collections over time, one tool at a time, as we deal with rotten sills, missing trim, and balky windows.

Here's my list of 12 essentials, most of them hand tools. Think of this list as a starting point, a good foundation for building a more complete tool collection in the future. You'll want to add many other tools, but I doubt you'll ever find anything on this list obsolete.

hammer1. Hammer. Few tools are used as often or as hard. My favorite is a 20-oz. Estwing rip. The weight is a good compromise, and the straight claws can chop out rot or stop your slide off the roof. The steel shaft has a comfortable rubber-like grip. (, about $22).

2. Tape measure. A 25-ft. model from Stanley, the Contractor Grade MaxSteel, has a long enough reach for most jobs, and the tape will support itself for 9 ft., making it easy to hook a rafter tail or corner board when you're on a ladder. (Model 33-599,, about $18).

3. Square. Choosing a single square isn't easy, but a 7-in. Speed Square from Swanson is a good start. It can be used to mark angles as well as right angles, lay out rafters and guide saw cuts. It fits easily into a nail bag or back pocket. (model T0101,, about $7).

4. Handsaw. Purists will want antique Disstons, but a model with interchangeable Japanese blades from Tashiro Hardware is more versatile. Blades stay sharp a long time. An Air Jet handle and two blades (one rip, one crosscut) costs about $52. (

5. Pry bar. For tearing out floor boards and old framing, a Stanley Wonder Bar is just the ticket. (model 55-525,, about $11).

6. Circular saw. A 7-1/4-in. circular saw makes short work of dimensional lumber and panel products. There are many good ones on the market, but my basic Makita just won't die (Model 5007NBK,, about $135).

7. Recip saw. These saws have short, reciprocating blades that power through wood, hidden nails, and pipe. Nothing is as useful for reaching into awkward spots. Look for one with a quick-change blade mechanism, like a Milwaukee Super Sawzall (Model 6537-22,, about $170).

chalk line8. Chalk line. What else makes a perfectly straight layout line 50 feet long? An Irwin Speed Line Reel also doubles as plumb bob, checks walls for straightness and helps straighten uneven rafter tails. (Model 64494,, about $6).

9. Cordless drill. Cordless drills are getting bigger and better but 18- and 24-volt models are overkill for most jobs. The 15.6-volt Panasonic will handle heavy work but it's still relatively compact. (Model EY6432GQKW,, about $200).

10. Block plane. You may end up with a collection of planes, but start here. A block plane eliminates mill and burn marks from wood, adjusts the fit of molding and fine-tunes miter joints. A low-angle model from Lie-Nielsen is a delight. (Model 102I,, about $75).

11. 2-ft. level. A longer level would be better for some jobs, but a 2-ft. model is useful in more places. Stabila levels can be returned if they ever become inaccurate. (Model 24640,, about $50).

12. Chisels. Like hand planes and saws, your chisel collection will inevitably grow over time. Start with a basic set, like this one from Marples. The chisels are reasonably priced, have indestructible polypropylene handles and hold a pretty good edge. (Model M444/S4,, about $25).

So that's my list of fundamentals. When I started repairing old houses 25 years ago, I only had a few tools. I've bought many more since then but if I were starting all over again tomorrow, this bare-bones toolbox would be a great beginning.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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